King’s College Cambridge choir prepares for live Christmas broadcast

The death of Stephen Cleobury was announced on 24 November 2019. This interview is from December 2018, as he was preparing for what was to be his last Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

At two minutes past three on Monday, with dusk just beginning to fall, many people’s Christmases will properly begin. That is when a boy treble from the choir of King’s College, Cambridge – chosen by music director Stephen Cleobury from his shortlist of possible soloists just seconds before the service begins – sings the opening verse of Once in Royal David’s City live on Radio 4.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has flourished despite the fact that society has become more secular, but Cleobury sees no contradiction in that. “The service, as with our regular evensong in term time, is open to everybody,” he says.

“It’s very important that we do the right thing by people of genuine Christian conviction, but it’s also important that we welcome and include people who have different views, including those who have lost all faith or who come from different faiths.

“We are providing something that people can connect with in different ways. Hearing Once in Royal David’s City or In the Bleak Midwinter connects people with something earlier in their life and provides a solace of some kind.”

A rehearsal of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols.
A rehearsal of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

This year’s festival has particular significance. It is 100 years since the service began, the brainchild of King’s College dean Eric Milner-White, who wanted a service that could unite and inspire people after the horrors of the first world war, and 90 years since it was first broadcast on BBC radio. It is also Cleobury’s final outing after 37 years as music director – he will be 70 on 31 December and retires next year after an epic stint (second among King’s music directors only to Arthur Henry Mann, who managed a remarkable 53 years from 1876 to 1929).

It has proved a challenging final year for Cleobury. In March he was knocked over by a cyclist – a very Cambridge accident – and fractured his skull. Happily, after a short layoff, he was back leading the choir. Then, earlier this month, opera singer Lesley Garrett directed a broadside against King’s all-male choir (it is made up of 16 boy choristers and 14 male undergraduate choral scholars), calling it a “throwback to a bygone age” and demanding that girls be allowed in. It led to a lively debate to which Cleobury, until now, has not responded.

“It’s an interesting subject,” he tells me, “but not something that can be dealt with in soundbites. We haven’t gone for a mixed choir in the chapel choir, but we have made significant contributions to opportunities for girls to sing in other ways.”

He points out that during his time as music director, the college has started King’s Voices, a mixed choir of undergraduates that has given women the chance to sing in the chapel at evensong every Monday. He has also launched King’s Junior Voices, which brings 100 children every weekend to the choir school attached to the college to learn to sing. Of those, he says, two-thirds are girls.

Cleobury doesn’t defend keeping a boys-only choir, as some do, in terms of the quality or uniqueness of the sound. “For me that is not the main issue,” he says, “because you can listen to boys’ choir X and boys’ choir Y and they’ll sound different. Likewise with girls’ choirs. It depends how they’re trained and on the sort of sound the choir director has in mind.”

The boys’ choir prepares for its performance.
The boys’ choir prepares for its performance. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The real reason to maintain boys-only choirs, he argues, is that boys need to be encouraged to sing. When choirs are opened up to girls, they tend to overwhelm them, outnumbering the boys and perhaps making them feel self-conscious, and if boys aren’t being trained between the ages of eight and 13 the production line of male singers starts to dry up.

“Boys – certainly in the presence of girls – feel that singing isn’t a cool thing to do,” he says. “But they are the tenors and basses of tomorrow. Neglect them and you won’t have your symphony chorus, so you won’t have your Beethoven Nine or your Missa Solemnis or your Dream of Gerontius being performed.”

But will it be sustainable in the future for the BBC to have a boys-only choir for its Christmas showpiece? “I’m not in the business of prediction,” he says, explaining that it would be for the college authorities to change the composition of the chapel choir. At some point, though, the BBC will come under pressure to rule on the issue, and whether they will be willing to hold the line is a moot point. Traditional practice and gender equality make for discordant partners.

Members of King’s College choir prepare for a final rehearsal before the recording of their famous A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service.
Members of King’s College choir prepare for a final rehearsal before the recording of their famous A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols service. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

The radio version of the service is broadcast live; the TV version which goes out at 5.50pm on BBC2 on Christmas Eve was recorded a few weeks ago. Traditionalists will favour the radio broadcast, in part because it integrates the biblical Christmas story and the carols more organically – Cleobury says he chooses the music to match the readings and that it is not merely “a selection of all our favourite carols” – but also because of the unpredictability of live performance.

Is Cleobury fearful of things going wrong? “I wouldn’t use the word fearful,” he says, “but I’ve never gone into it with any sense of complacency. I try to get appropriately geared up – that’s a combination of preparation in advance and concentration in the moment.”

The college estimates that more than 100 million people around the world listen to A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. It is broadcast on the BBC World Service and on 450 public radio stations in the US, where it has a very loyal audience. The TV version, Carols from King’s, gets more than 2 million viewers in the UK.

For his valedictory service, Cleobury has chosen half a dozen carols that were sung at the first service in 1918 and also included arrangements by his five predecessors as music director. It will be an attempt to sum up a century of Christmases at King’s.

“I shall be full of emotion,” says Cleobury. “I’m sometimes accused of being a bit buttoned up, but I’m not really.” Did he always intend to stay for so long as music director? “I never had a plan,” he says. “It’s been immensely stimulating and rewarding. Who wouldn’t want to go into that building [the college’s cathedral-sized chapel] each day and make music?”


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Lesley Garrett says King's College Choir must accept girls
Soprano says renowned all-male choir must keep in step with changes in society

Tobi Thomas

06, Dec, 2018 @12:01 AM

Article image
‘It was unheard of’: UK’s first cathedral girls’ choir marks 30 years
Current and former members of Salisbury Cathedral’s landmark choir to sing together at gala

Steven Morris

06, Oct, 2021 @1:54 PM

Article image
Sacked Sheffield cathedral choristers start 'choir in exile'
Former master of music to direct new ‘inclusive’ choir amid claims of cathedral bullying

Harriet Sherwood

16, Sep, 2020 @8:00 PM

Article image
Decision to disband Sheffield cathedral choir strikes discordant note
Dean wants music to reflect changing city but traditionalists say centuries of history being jettisoned

Harriet Sherwood

23, Jul, 2020 @4:08 PM

Article image
Stormzy Bible reading to end BBC One's Christmas Day
Rapper, who often credits God with his success, will read story of angels heralding the birth of Jesus to the shepherds

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

18, Dec, 2019 @11:11 AM

Article image
King’s College in Cambridge reviews its ban on wild swimming
College says it will not prosecute anyone who swims responsibly in the Cam after ban prompts defiance

Matthew Weaver

05, Jul, 2021 @1:48 PM

Article image
C of E college apologises for students' attempt to 'queer evening prayer'
Westcott House in Cambridge says LGBT service liturgy that referred to God as ‘the Duchess’ was hugely regrettable

Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent

03, Feb, 2017 @5:56 PM

Article image
Sir Stephen Cleobury, former King's College choir conductor, dies at 70
Conductor and composer directed world-famous choir for nearly four decades

Nicola Slawson

24, Nov, 2019 @11:55 AM

Article image
How Truro created Christmas musical history

The Nine Lessons and Carols service is held in churches all across the world today. Less well known are its origins in a wooden cathedral, and how it was meant to keep locals from too much of the wrong kind of Christmas spirit, writes Truro Cathedral's Christopher Gray

Christopher Gray, director of music, Truro Cathedral

29, Nov, 2013 @3:56 PM

Article image
Schoolgirls end Canterbury Cathedral tradition of male-only choral singing
Girls' choir to sing at evensong on 25 January, as mother church of Anglican Communion takes steps towards gender equality

James Meikle

09, Jan, 2014 @8:18 PM